Modern Day Pilgrims


DAYANA FERNANDEZ lays her crucifix down on the thick slab of smooth, rose-colored stone, then raises the gold and jade cross to her lips and gently kisses it. She crosses herself as she steps away from the coffin-sized rock, the place where many Christians believe Jesus was anointed before he was buried.

Here in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, others bend down to kiss the rock, which is covered by a hanging canopy of about a dozen ornamental oil lamps, as tourists snap pictures of each other touching the stone.

For Ms. Fernandez, a Roman Catholic from Ecuador, visiting the places where Jesus walked has brought the Bible to life. The church is especially revered by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, who believe it marks the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.

The Via Dolorosa, or 12 stations of the cross, including those here, was marked by Queen Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, during her pilgrimage in 326. The foundation of Constantine's original church, subsequently built in 335, buttresses today's structure, which dates to 1149.

"I'm very Catholic and it's a great feeling to actually come here. It's always been a dream for me to come, and now that I'm here, I feel the presence of God very strongly. It's an amazing feeling for me to come to the Old City of Jerusalem - it's where Christianity began. I think it will change my life. Lots of people in Ecuador are very Catholic but never go to church. For me, it will be more personal. When you see something and learn that Jesus passed through here, it's an incredible sensation. Inside the church, the pictures are so beautiful and you feel God's presence.

"This rock is probably the most important place. I know there's no way of knowing if this is the exact spot where Jesus was anointed. People may have come here over the years and changed the locations. The most important thing for me is the belief that Jesus was here."


LOIS MORGAN STANDS with a thin Hebrew book cupped in her hands and begins to read Mincha, the main afternoon service of Judaism's thrice-daily prayers, just as she has for most of her life. Except this time, for the first time, she is standing in front of the Western Wall, the holiest place in Judaism.

The towering limestone structure is the remnant of what was a retaining wall of the Second Temple, destroyed AD 70. Around her, women crying over the temple's destruction are reminders of why it was often called the "Wailing Wall." A few hours away from the onset of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown, some lean on one arm and weep. Some sway as they whisper prayers, some kiss the well-worn stones, and others slip crumpled-up messages to God between the crevices.

But Mrs. Morgan, a modern Orthodox Hebrew teacher from Newton, Mass., prays quietly and retreats, overcome more by a sense of disbelief at having finally reached the place Jews believe is closest to God.

"It doesn't look real. It looks like a stage set because it looks so perfect, and even after 2,000 years, it doesn't really look like it's aged. I've spent my whole life studying Torah, and I'm observant anyway, so I don't know if it's going to make me a more religious person.

"I've always believed that religion is portable. I'm a Diaspora Jew, and to me that meant that you could be a Jew anywhere. But to look at something that is thousands of years old, it seems like the Jewish people itself - eternal. I've just stepped off a plane, and it seems too fast - you don't have enough time to prepare yourself for the impact.

"In the Middle Ages, it would take six months to make a pilgrimage like this. I know I'm here in one sense, yet something else tells me I must be dreaming."


ATHOL JONKER sits on a wooden bench inside Garden Tomb, a contemplative sanctuary of trees and flower bushes outside the Old City Walls. Here, British General George Gordan noticed skull-like indentations on a small cliff in 1883 and named it the actual location of Golgotha.

Jesus' crucifixion, he noted, took place outside the walls of Jerusalem - and a 1st-century burial cave was found nearby. Today, many Protestant pilgrims are drawn here, a place that presents a simple alternative to the rich icons and redolent incense that fill the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Mr. Jonker, a Pentecostal born-again Christian, decided to make another journey here from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, after visiting the city for the first time last year. After a career in the car industry, he experienced a religious awakening 10 years ago and now acts as a missionary in other African countries.

"The Garden Tomb emphasizes the whole foundation of the message of Jesus Christ. When one sees the place of the skull, it seems to enforce the word we've read. If you read very carefully, it seems to fit in very carefully with what Jesus Christ said. To me, it's not just another place, it's a place of Jesus of 2000 years ago.

"The Christian walk is about Calvary and the tomb. Jesus did it in the physical, and now you have to do it in the spiritual. So symbolically, you have to die yourself; you also have to go to Calvary to die. There are a lot of things in life that God doesn't like, and these things have to be put to death. It's a cleansing of sin.

"You have to realize it before you come here. You don't just see it and then it happens - otherwise, it becomes ritual, and that's dead. It's not about funny gimmicks and gadgets.

"I don't have to come here and go kiss that stone. That's not really what it's about. This happens to be where it really has taken place, but it's not the site that counts. This place is physical, but it's here to spell out what that notion stands for. It's not for us to figure out, it's for us to believe."


MEHLAQA SAMDANI peers through to the other side of the stone archway. Inside, rows of men prostrate themselves in sync with the call to prayer just above the Western Wall. It is Friday, the Muslim holy day, and the Noble Sanctuary, a massive plateau that supports Islam's third-holiest shrines - the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque - is full of worshippers.

Also known as the Temple Mount because it was once home to the First and Second Temples, it is holy to Jews and Christians as well because it is believed to be the place where Abraham proved his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Muslims say that Ishmael was the one who went through the ordeal.

Ms. Samdani, a Muslim student from Pakistan, has arrived halfway through the service, and by chance, at a gate used only by men during prayer time. Instead, she will wait until the crowds leave and pray on her own in the place where, Muslims believe, God took the Prophet Muhammad on his Night Journey to heaven: the Dome built in his memory - in 691, hardly 60 years after Muhammad's death.

Samdani's visit here is a privilege that few Pakistanis can enjoy. While Pakistan, like most Muslim countries, forbids pilgrims to visit here because it has no relations with Israel, Samdani was able to make the trip because she is currently studying in the United States, at the University of Denver.

In addition to visiting the holy sites, she's trying to locate the tomb of a great Muslim ideologue whose followers helped found Pakistan. Her visit will culminate in the start of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month marked by dawn-to-dusk fasting.

"Being here is overwhelming. About 99.5 percent of Pakistanis are Muslim, and most of them would love to come here but can't. I went to prayers here last week, and it was quite an experience. I don't know Arabic, except to read the Koran and pray, so it was strange for everything going on around me to be in Arabic.

"Just to know that Muhammad was here is overpowering. Islam has always been tangible for me, but being here is so overwhelming. It's hard to register the feelings. It took me a while to register that I was really here - I hadn't really thought about it because it was never really an option for me until a few months ago. Altogether, it's been a very spiritual journey.

"I'll be here until Ramadan, and that is really significant to us. Ramadan is a feeling of unity, that so many Muslims all over the world are observing something together. The essence of Ramadan is not just fasting, but why you're fasting. You try to achieve a certain spirituality during that time and to transcend your physical needs."


MEHRIVAR MEKNUNI removes his shoes, sets them aside with tens of others, and lifts his head to marvel at the gold embellishments that adorn the ceiling of the Dome of the Rock, the third-holiest place in Islam. Inside the shrine, worshippers assume that the Iranian native and his mother, her hair covered with a thick scarf, are Muslims, too. But the two are followers of Bahai, just a generation or two removed from grandfathers who converted to the 154-year-old religion from Islam.

Bahais consider the three older monotheistic religions as the foundation of theirs, which recognizes Baha'u'allah as the most recent messenger of God. Born in Persia in 1892, he died in exile in Ottoman Palestine, where he wrote some of his most influential writings. Bahai grew into a religion that claims more than 5 million followers in more than 200 countries, but there is no place where its followers are more persecuted than in the country where they began - Iran.

Meknuni, now a resident of Los Angeles, and his mother, who was visiting him from Iran, were able to make only a short pilgrimage to the Bahai holy sites in Haifa and Acco - as well as other holy sites in Jerusalem - because he is a naturalized US citizen.

"Being a Bahai in Iran is the riskiest thing you can do. But like in any religion, if you believe, you accept the consequences of that. Every person has a belief, and sometimes you have to suffer for it. It is a privilege for anyone to come here, not just Bahais, and everyone in Iran would love to visit the holy places here.

"We did pray [at the Dome of the Rock], but not in the same way that [Muslims] do. We don't come here to pray to the site itself, but in the memory of the culture and the religion. Where you pray or on which site doesn't matter, so long as you pray for peace and humanity.

"We have the same respect for all the holy sites because we accept the previous religions. The impact of my trip here is so huge that there is no word to explain it."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.